Congress Moves Ahead with Biden Agenda

The US Capitol building with a waving American flag superimposed on the skyThis blog post is written by AACTE consultant Jane West and is intended to provide updated information. The views expressed in this post do not necessarily reflect the views of AACTE. 

Biden’s Executive Action and Political Appointments 

This week, President Biden continued with his executive action blitz—signing a series of orders, actions, and memorandums aimed at rapidly addressing the coronavirus pandemic and dismantling many of the former administration’s policies. Among the orders signed to date are several of keen interest to educators, including the restoration of  DACA, the repeal of the Trump order on race and stereotyping, an extension of the pause on student loan collection through September, and an order requiring the Department of Education to issue guidance on school re-openings during the pandemic.

Almost a week after being sworn in, President Biden is seeing his Cabinet start to come together. This week the Senate confirmed  Antony Blinken, as Secretary of State, Janet Yellen,as Secretary of the Treasury, Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense, and Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence—all with bipartisan votes. Biden awaits confirmation of numerous key Cabinet nominees to lead important agencies—including Justice, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services and the CIA.

The Senate HELP Committee has scheduled a confirmation hearing for Miguel Cardona to be Secretary of Education on February 3 at 10:00 a.m. You can watch it here. In the meantime, President Biden has named Philip Rosenfelt as Acting Secretary of Education. Rosenfelt is Deputy General Counsel in the Office of General Counsel at the Department and served as Acting Secretary during the Obama-Trump transition. 

A number of political appointees with education responsibilities who do not need Senate confirmation have been announced. It appears that the Biden team is focusing on Cabinet confirmation before moving to Assistant Secretary level positions. In addition, Kathy Valle—formerly education policy director for Chairman Bobby Scott of the House Committee on Education and Labor—has been named to oversee the higher education portfolio in the White House’s Domestic Policy Council. 

COVID Relief Bill Proceeds; School Re-openings a Hot Topic

Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion relief package has a strong emphasis on reopening schools for a majority of K-8 students in his first 100 days in office. Administration officials are suggesting the appropriation of $170 billion for schools, supplemented by additional state and local funds. About $130 billion of that would go toward reopening, while much of the rest of the money would go to help colleges dealing with the shift to distance learning and other pandemic-tied problems.

On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Schumer (D-NY) warned that Democrats were willing to go at it alone on the next relief package. Sen. Schumer said that it was the preference of Democrats to work with Republicans, but that if GOP senators wanted to move too slowly or go smaller than Democrats think necessary, they will move ahead without GOP support. To pass the bill without Republican support, Democrats will need to use reconciliation, a budget process that allows a bill to pass with only 51 votes, rather than the 61 that is generally required. But first Democrats must pave the way by passing a budget resolution that provides instructions to committees for drafting legislation. This could happen as soon as next week. Congress faces a deadline of March 14, when the current round of jobless benefits begins to expire.

School reopening continues to be a controversial topic in relation to COVID relief. Teachers’ unions have suggested that officials have not done enough to keep their members safe and should continue with remote learning until such measures are put in place. However, on Tuesday the CDC weighed in with a call for returning children to classrooms as soon as possible, noting the “preponderance of available evidence” indicates that in-person instruction can be carried out safely as long as mask-wearing and social distancing are maintained. Biden has indicated that he is not blaming teachers and their unions for schools remaining closed, stating that reopening is “complicated,” particularly in larger urban areas.

House Democrats on Thursday introduced three bills that they would like to see added to the COVID package.  The bills are the “Reopen and Rebuild America’s Schools Act,” the “Save Education Jobs Act” and the “Learning Recovery Act of 2021.” Education and Labor Committee Chair Bobby Scott  said “The package of bills introduced today reflects our commitment to helping students, educators, and parents overcome the pandemic, reopen our schools, and finally access a quality, public education.” A report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities notes that states could experience a combined $555 billion budget shortfall between fiscal years 2020 to 2022. Citing a teachers’ union report, the Committee noted that up to 1.9 million education jobs could be lost over the same timeframe. All together, the three bills address school infrastructure, learning loss, preventing education layoffs, expanding access to high-speed broadband for public schools, and requiring states to develop public databases on the condition of their public school facilities.

What do the First Lady and Second Gentleman Have in Common?

 Education interests and commitments rest in the heart of the White House. We have known that First Lady Dr. Biden, will continue to teach at Northern Virginia Community College, where she taught full-time during her two terms as second lady. But joining her in teaching is Second Gentleman, Douglas Emhoff, who will join the Georgetown University Law Center faculty as a distinguished visitor from practice to teach an entertainment law course. In another first, this will be the first time the spouses of both the president and vice president have held jobs outside of their official duties in their respective White House roles.

Too read the full Washington Update, visit my website and, stay in touch via twitter @janewestdc.

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Jane E. West

AACTE Education Policy Consultant